Oct. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Police using tear gas, smoke bombs and water cannons failed to stop thousands of secularists who forged ahead to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s mausoleum in a march that highlighted the divide over secularism on the 89th anniversary of the founding of modern Turkey.
Police removed roadblocks as tens of thousands of flag-waving secularists marched to the mausoleum of Turkey’s founder following clashes outside the parliament building in Ankara where Ataturk declared the republic, CNN-Turk television said.
“Some policemen kicked youths who only wanted to unfurl Turkish flags,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, told CNN-Turk. “It is very sad. How can a government that is against the republic call itself the government of the republic?”
Marchers were reacting to the Islamic-rooted government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which they accuse of raising the profile of Islam in predominantly Muslim and officially secular Turkey. The government has recently allowed Koran courses in schools while lifting the ban on graduates of imam and preacher schools to become military cadets.
The crowd included supporters of the CHP as well as smaller opposition parties and more than 40 non-governmental organizations that shunned official celebrations at a nearby stadium, CNN-Turk said. Erdogan invited people to join celebrations at a stadium in Ankara while Cabinet members accused the opposition party of attempting to divide the public.
Ayse Gulsun Bilgehan, a CHP lawmaker, told CNN-Turk she was burned with pepper spray during the clashes.
CHP supporters also confronted police during official celebrations in the Mediterranean cities of Mersin and Antalya, Hurriyet newspaper reported today. In Antalya, some CHP members accused military commanders, self-proclaimed guarantors of the secular government, of not doing enough to protect the republic, Hurriyet said.
The country’s leaders, who hailed the recent convictions of dozens of generals and officers on charges of plotting to overthrow the government in 2003, reject the allegations of undermining secularism.
“Neither Ataturk nor the republic is anyone’s monopoly,” Idris Bal, a lawmaker from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, told CNN-Turk. “Everyone should refrain from acts that could lead to polarization” among Turks.
The secular opposition party said it will also boycott a reception later today by President Abdullah Gul, who for the first time invited government members with their wives, many of whom wear Islamic head scarves, to mark the anniversary. Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government is trying to ease a ban on Islamic head scarves in public offices.
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